Mark Dantonio has a national championship ring tucked away in a drawer somewhere from his time with Ohio State in 2002. So he knows that it takes a little bit extra -- a fortuitous bounce one week, a heroic effort the next -- to win it all.
The Buckeyes team he helped coach to a title won seven games by a touchdown or less. This year's Michigan State team isn’t much different. The Spartans needed some memorable moments to land a spot as the No. 3 seed in this season's College Football Playoff. As the team preps for its trip to Dallas in a couple days for the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, here are the 10 plays most crucial to getting the Spartans started on that journey.
Sept. 12 vs. Oregon (East Lansing, Mich.) It was only the second quarter of the second game of the season, but the Spartans’ goal-line stand against Oregon could have changed the course of the season. Michigan State stuffed five plays from inside its 5-yard line to maintain an early lead. Sophomore Malik McDowell drove Ducks’ center Matt Hegarty backward like a blocking sled on fourth down to end the scoring threat and begin a dominant season in the middle of the defensive line.
Oct. 3 vs. Purdue (East Lansing, Mich.) Fifth-year cornerback Arjen Colquhoun helped No. 2 Michigan State avoid an embarrassing upset with a strong final drive. The Boilermakers trailed 21-0 at halftime, but cut the deficit to three and had the ball in the game’s final minutes. Colquhoun’s first breakup on a fourth down near midfield was negated by a defensive holding call. A series later he batted down another fourth-down attempt and this time it stuck. The Spartans held on for the win, and for the first of several times this season flexed their ability to close out games even when not at their best.
Oct. 10 at Rutgers (Piscataway, N.J.) R.J. Shelton said he knew the ball was coming his way as soon as he released from the line of scrimmage. Facing a third-and-long from its own territory late in the fourth quarter, quarterback Connor Cook floated a perfect pass down the sideline to Shelton, who leapt over a Rutgers defender for a highlight-worthy grab. The catch sparked a 10-play, 76-yard scoring drive that ended in a game-winning touchdown with less than a minute remaining.
Oct. 17 at Michigan (Ann Arbor, Mich,) Trevon Pendleton always finds a way on to these lists. The fullback had four catches all season, but against rival Michigan he rumbled 74 yards to the goal line to set up a Spartans touchdown. His wide-open run down the sideline led to a touchdown that made the score 23-21 early in the fourth quarter and set up the craziest finish in program history.
Oct. 17 at Michigan (Ann Arbor, Mich,) No one in the state of Michigan will ever forget Jalen Watts-Jackson's first and only touch of the 2015 season. The sophomore special teams player scooped up a bumbled punt in the closing seconds at the Big House and ran it 38 yards to complete a come-from-behind win. Watts-Jackson broke his hip on the final stride before the end zone and missed the rest of the season.
Nov. 7 at Nebraska (Lincoln, Neb.) Last-second chaos hurt Michigan State in Lincoln. The Spartans' only loss this season came when Nebraska receiver Brandon Reilly hauled in a 30-yard touchdown pass with 17 seconds remaining after stepping out of bounds. Referees ruled he was forced out, so the touchdown remained. The game didn’t cost Michigan State its shot at a playoff. Instead, Spartan players say it served as a wake-up call for a defense that has played considerably better since giving up 39 points to the Cornhuskers.
Nov. 21 at Ohio State (Columbus, Ohio) Sophomore running back Gerald Holmes punched in a game-tying score from the two-yard line on a foreshadowing drive for the Spartans in Columbus. With no passing threat for Michigan State, Holmes carried the ball seven times on a drive that spanned six minutes, starting in the third quarter and spilling into the fourth. He bounced off a pair of tacklers and reached into the end zone on his final carry. The score set up a dramatic finish and was also an abridged version of our final play on the list.
Nov. 21 at Ohio State (Columbus, Ohio) Michael Geiger's windmill will be an iconic moment for Michigan State, especially if this season ends on a high note. Geiger’s 41-yard field goal (and ensuing celebration) as time expired at the Horseshoe more than made up for a mediocre season for the placekicker. It clinched a victory against undefeated Ohio State and put the Spartans in the driver's seat to win the East Division.
Dec. 5 vs. Iowa (Indianapolis, Ind.) The ball nearly came to rest on Riley Bullough's lower back before Michigan State’s Demetrious Cox dove and plucked it from the air. Bullough separated an Iowa receiver from the ball with a vicious hit in the end zone during the second quarter of the Big Ten Championship Game. The hit popped loose a potential touchdown pass and turned it into an interception for the Spartans. It prevented Michigan State from falling behind by 10 in the first half of a defensive battle.
Dec. 5 vs. Iowa (Indianapolis, Ind.) LJ Scott also wrote his name into Spartans lore this season with a heroic effort to finish a heroic drive. Scott plowed his way through five Iowa defenders before reaching out across the goal line for a championship-winning touchdown in the final minute of the title fight. His perseverance on the play was a fitting end to an epic 22-play drive that gave Michigan State the final push it needed to reach the College Football Playoff.